Konami's attitude towards its well-regarded franchises has left the future of the official Castlevania series bleak. Regardless, Koji Igarashi of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night fame and beyond has brought us the long-awaited Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. It’s as official of a Castlevania release as possible without Konami's direct approval. Before, Mighty No. 9 tried the same with the Mega Man formula but it was a huge disappointment. However, Ritual of the Night is a true return to the form for the much-beloved franchise.
Ritual of the Night’s set up evokes Symphony of the Night's plot at a surface level. Unfortunately, when compared to the timeless classic, the story has little emotional weight going for it. Even though Miriam’s perceived loss of humanity as a result of becoming a shardbinder parallels Alucard’s struggle as a half-human, half-vampire, his inner conflict was explored effectively and efficiently. Here, we never get any real moments of Miriam's past or internal struggle besides sparse references through poorly delivered dialogue and background text. Beyond that, the main villain was notably dull, but to be fair, a villain like Dracula leaves big shoes to fill. The story plays heavily on misunderstandings, and misguidedly follows Symphony of the Night as its narrative framework only to its detriment.
The cast is fairly uninteresting and lack creative flair. Miriam’s close friend, Gebel, has gone rogue and it’s her goal to try and snap him out of it. Sadly, the voice acting makes the narrative even worse as it often sounds uninspired and stale. Though I found some parts of the storytelling mildly entertaining, it was a generally underwhelming. Thankfully, the gameplay does a far better job at capturing the essence of Castlevania.
Mechanically, Ritual of the Night is essentially a greatest hits collection of all the modern 2D Castlevania games. It’s essentially a melting pot that brings everything to the table to create a game that has all things Castlevania; demon shards in the vein of Aria of Sorrow’s soul system, large, interconnected levels of Symphony of the Night, and the quest system introduced in Portrait of Ruin as well as some addictive RPG mechanics to add to the top. All the game misses is the meticulous design that Castlevania series is known for. Regardless, despite simply building upon the immensely satisfying franchise structure, the game manages to feel fresh due to the new lore, characters, enemies, and presentation. Though it has occasional difficulty peaks, the Normal Mode was missing some much-needed challenge. Admittedly, the player is able to set up a more arduous journey for themselves in Hard and Nightmare modes. However, it did not occur to me during my first playthrough that the harder difficulties could be selected using special names.
To be frank, Ritual of the Night is the kind of glorious return of Castlevania that fans have been waiting for. All the polish and quality-of-life improvements from the portable titles and more are present and accounted for. However, when compared to the game it imitates the most, Symphony of the Night, Rituals of the Night fails to impress as much as it did. However, judging the game on its own merits, it certainly is a great game. Admittedly, matching Symphony of the Night is indeed a difficult task, but it’s the cost of naming the game after such a classic.
Even though the most popular Castlevania mechanics are present, there’s a clear lack of focus. Where the games featuring Soma Cruz specifically dealt with souls, Ritual of the Night’s similar shard system lacks the same level of polish and pacing. I managed to cruise through the main story with little more than the early game shard, True Arrow. Its sheer amount of burst damage and 360 degree aiming made it too easy for hunting, so I was left wondering if I had somehow stumbled upon the strongest skill early on.
Despite all the gripes I have with the mechanics, I am honestly glad that we get another game in this style. Ritual of the Night is a solid Castlevania game at its heart and that’s what really matters. It has tight controls and a huge variety of weapons, shards, and equipment to experiment with. Some clearly dominant skills make the game a cakewalk on Normal mode, though.
The game does a good job capturing the gothic aesthetic of the franchise. The game is presented in 2.5D so it departs from the beautiful sprite art of the past. The visual style is serviceable, but I never found myself all that impressed when considering what the current consoles are capable of. Visually busier skills and killing enemies in newly-loaded areas resulted in heavy slowdowns. At least the soundtrack matches the diverse and varied environments.
When all is said and done, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night delivers on its promise of bringing Castlevania back. Though I had various issues with the game, it still manages to provide that distinct Metroidvania experience. From the forgettable and dull story to the unbalanced gameplay, Ritual of the Night can’t compete with the best of the series. However, based on its own merits, it still provides a journey worth playing at least once or twice. Without a doubt, the game’s release is worth celebrating for, though it’s missing that creative spark Castlevania series has had in spades.